I recently went to see Bad Moms, a movie about a stressed-out mom who gives up on both her jobs as a professional and a mom. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it, but it’s the movie’s message I want to talk about.
There is a point in the movie where moms at a PTA meeting admit the ways in which they are bad moms. Whether it’s not giving their child a bath for 3 weeks or drinking at inappropriate times, it’s obvious that every mom — even the most put-together ones — have these bad mom moments.
The problem is instead of feeling a bit guilty about these things, moms feel a secret shame about them. In her books shame researcher, Brene Brown, explains the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is feeling bad for doing something you know you shouldn’t do, but shame is feeling unworthy because of it. Much of this has to do with our hyped-up self-esteem culture, something today’s parents and kids are especially vulnerable to. The competition is high, and everyone vying to be the best. The best parents produce the most successful kids. This is what happiness is about, right?
Why Searching for Self Esteem Hurts so Much
While researching for my next book, I stumbled upon Kristin Neff Ph.D.’s website and book, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. On her website she writes about the negative effects of our “self-esteem culture,” which focuses on making sure children feel good about themselves:
The main problem is that having high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average. To be called average is considered an insult in our culture. (“How did you like my performance last night?” “It was average.” Ouch!) Of course, it’s logically impossible for every human being on the planet to be above average at the same time. So we develop what’s known as a “self-enhancement bias,” which refers to the tendency to think of ourselves as superior to others on a variety of dimensions. Studies have shown that most people feel they’re friendlier, more popular, funnier, nicer, more trustworthy, wiser and more intelligent than others. Ironically, most people also think they’re above average in the ability to view themselves objectively! The result of wearing these rose-colored glasses isn’t so pretty.
Neff explains that this push for self-esteem actually increases many of the things we don’t want: social comparisons, bullying, narcissism, and being self-critical when not doing well or making mistakes. Instead of trying to make a child feel good about themselves 24/7, it pays to help them develop self-compassion.
“Self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical,” Neff says on her website. “It recognizes that the human condition is imperfect so that we feel connected to others when we fail or suffer rather than feeling separate or isolated.”
More interestingly, research shows that self-compassion is linked to decreased psychological distress (anxiety, depression, etc.), more healthy habits, increased life satisfaction, and body appreciation. One study found that self-compassion protects against what researchers call “body-related threats” such as body comparisons and getting self-esteem from appearance. It’s good for our health and happiness.
Don’t miss Maryann’s podcast interview with Karen Bluth about the power of self-compassion
The Ups and Downs Make the Journey More Fun
In Bad Moms, you can see the relief the women feel when other moms announce their missteps. How nice it can be for young people to realize that they, too, are not alone in their challenges, mistakes, and insecurities.
We all have ups and downs. Truth is, we learn a lot more from the downs than we do the ups. But we can’t learn from the downs when we are drenched in shame or stay defensive because we are afraid it will make us look bad (that’s the self-esteem culture talking).
And really, it’s draining trying to be perfect all the time, and not much fun. Plus, it often ends in rebellion of some sort, followed by shame for simply being human.
So I keep reminding myself, and my family, that we all benefit from being kind to each other and especially ourselves. I often admit my own challenges to my kids and follow it with “I know it can be hard to learn your mother isn’t perfect.” After saying that, I usually can’t stop them — and my husband — from laughing.
So if you’re having a hard time parenting or your child is less than perfect, you and your child are in good company. It just really helps to hear it sometimes.